Vallarta Tribune, Nov 5-11, 2006, issue # 500, pg 25

October is “Breast Cancer Awareness” month. In order to honor of all of the women who have been afflicted, those who have survived and those who have not, and for those who of us who have yet to be diagnosed, we chose to imagine a scenario of what one woman might think and feel and what her family may experience.

The statistics of new cases of women afflicted by breast cancer each year are staggering. Christine Horner, a leading expert on breast cancer and recently published author states that “Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in U.S. women. Last year 215,990 women were told they had invasive breast cancer and 40,110 lives were claimed by it. At any given time 2 to 3 million women in this country are living with this disease.” (Horner, Christine, “Waking the Warrior Goddess: Dr. Christine Horner’s Program to Protect Against and Fight Breast Cancer,”2005)For more information go to www.protectivebreast.com and www.drchristinehorner.com

Basically, it seems that if you are a woman, you run the risk of developing breast cancer.  That risk is much higher if you live in the United States or western cultures than other parts of the world. It isn’t just about avoiding or changing a behavior such as breaking a smoking habit to prevent lung cancer. Breast cancer seems to have so many causes and its victims seem so random. Despite early detection available through mammograms and self-exams, women continue to detect lumps.

Breast cancer affects everyone

“Everyone” as in it knows no boundaries; women of all ages, economic status, ethnicities, races. However, “everyone” also means not just the victim; the woman afflicted with the disease, but also her husband, children, family, and friends. All of their lives change. All of them go through the process of acceptance passing through the denial, anger, fear and sadness. Some will go through it several times if the diseases progresses in and out of remission, and eventually becomes fatal.

Detection and diagnosis

Women over age 35 should go for annual mammograms, for many it’s become routine. We make our appointment, go through the routine exam, hold our breath during the dreaded moments that seem like long minutes of having our breasts smashed in the x-ray machine, then change back into our clothes and wait to be told we are free to leave. We think nothing of it…We dash off to wherever we have to be next; a meeting at work, picking the kids up from school or soccer, or to beat the traffic home in time to make dinner. Rarely have I ever seen a woman with a concerned face while she waits or an expression of relief when she is told she can leave. I think it’s become so routine that if we were told something different like “we need to take some more x-rays” or “the doctor needs to talk to you,” we would be stunned, caught completely off guard, yet thousands of women are called back in for the dreaded re-exam or news of a lump.

Now what?

Now the drive/commute home is a very different one, everything starts to run through your mind in an angry fury filled with fear. Your thoughts and emotions run rampantly in every direction. You wonder “how did this happen to me…why me…the tests must be incorrect…how will I tell my husband and children…and …oh my God, who will raise my children if something happens to me… ??????”

Then you settle down enough to go through the next step of scheduling a lumpectomy and then waiting for the dreaded results still hoping, praying and somehow convincing yourself and others that it will be benign (non-cancerous).Once that day, hour and minute arrives, that you are given the horrible news  that it’s malignant (cancerous)and they recommend you “begin treatment as immediately as possible” you barely have time to swallow and catch your breath and it’s time to find strength to take the next step…but what is the next step? How and when will you tell your children, your parents and siblings, your best friends, how much do you want them to know, when should you start treatment, how many other opinions should you get, how many other treatment options should you consider?

Family adaptation

The impact on the family lifestyle is greatly impacted from everyday routines to financial strains to emotional tension. Adaptation of schedules, duties, responsibilities, economic cutbacks, may all be necessary. Daily lifestyle considerations may include who will cook, do the laundry, and drive the kids around if their mom is too sick or exhausted from the chemotherapy, radiation or other treatments she may be undergoing. The husband or significant other may have to juggle his work schedule or take days off as well as accept additional responsibilities at home. The children need to learn not to count on their mother for everything and many begin to take on responsibilities around the house as well. Inevitability, the family reaches beyond their immediate family system towards extended family, friends and neighbors. Everyone becomes involved adjusting their own schedules to help out and provide support.

Of course there are women who may not be in a family situation where as many other people (husband and children), need to be considered in terms of schedules and responsibilities. This may be less stressful, but it may also mean that they have less immediate support and caretaking. Many live far away from their family of origin and have to turn to friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, many may go through this process relatively alone, some have no second income, and of course for others, there is no health insurance coverage, all of which create a great deal of stress.

Emotional adaptation

Simply the threat of potential loss of a wife, mother, sister or daughter, is life changing. Children may respond by denying or grossly minimizing such a threat and potential loss, while others may very sad and depressed, which may affect their school performance and social interactions. Husbands, mothers, siblings and friends may feel so powerless and frustrated by the helpless sense of not being able to make it better. It may become necessary or would be beneficial to have a professional therapist intervene and facilitate the process of acceptance by the children for example, or to process the various emotions the individuals are struggling with.